(This interview was originally published December 21, 2010 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)
When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Keith Coogan. He is probably best known by '80s fans as “Brad Anderson” from 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting. He comes from a Hollywood family with his grandfather being Jackie Coogan who was “The Kid” in the 1921 Charlie Chaplin film and probably best remembered as “Uncle Fester” on The Addams Family among his 67 year career. Keith started his professional acting career in 1978 at just 8 years old and worked steadily as a child actor. All grown up now, Coogan has a rather notable resume and is still adding to it. You will find out more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Keith Coogan…
Q: How was it being raised in an “acting family”? I assume that helped you choose acting as a career?
Keith: It was certainly a desire that seems to be in the blood. I really just wanted to be on the kid’s television shows I was watching at 4 years old. Never made it on Sesame Street though. I am bummed.
Jackie Coogan earned millions of dollars as a beloved child actor only to discover, upon reaching adulthood, that his parents had spent almost all of his money. He helped force a bill to be passed back in 1939 by the State of California designed to safeguard a portion of child performers’ earnings for when they enter adulthood. It is called the California Child Actor’s Bill, but is sometimes referred to as the Coogan Act. Q: You were a successful child actor yourself. Interesting and fortuitous that your grandfather was involved in making the California Child Actor’s Bill a reality?
Keith: Fortuitous in that it may have been harder to squander my earnings given the last name of the family. Not impossible… just harder… as we were more likely to be asked about my trust fund.
In the 1981 Disney animated feature film The Fox and the Hound, many people know that Mickey Rooney provides the adult voice for “Tod” the fox and that Kurt Russell provides the adult voice of “Copper” the hound. What you might not know is that the voice of young “Tod” is actually Keith Coogan and young “Copper” is Corey Feldman.
Q: How did the voice role of “Young Tod” in The Fox and the Hound come about? What are the challenges of only doing the voice of an animated character?
Keith: Don’t remember how the role came about, but I do remember recording the little fox dialogue on the sound stages of Disney in Burbank. The hardest part is coming up with grunts and odd bits of sounds that a character makes when doing something physical, that you can’t really act out with headphones on. Also, you never really get to work with the rest of the voice cast, usually just the director and maybe a reader for all the other parts. Rarely would we even run into other cast members as they would schedule our sessions on different days.
Here is the scene from The Fox and the Hound when Tod met Copper...
Q: Fellow child actor Corey Feldman did the voice for young “Copper”. Did you ever become friends with Corey then or over the years?
Keith: I have known and worked with Corey for many, many years. He is a dear friend… possibly one of the only other people I can talk to about working and growing up in the industry who truly understands. I have great respect for Corey.
When looking at the list of TV series that a young Coogan had small roles in between 1979 and 1989, you will see a list of many of the most popular TV shows of that time. Here is that list: The Love Boat, Eight is Enough, The Waltons, Fantasy Island, Laverne & Shirley, Little House on the Prairie, Mork & Mindy, Knight Rider, Fame, CHiPs, Growing Pains and 21 Jump Street. He won the 1983 Young Artist Award of Best Young Actor Guest on Series for his role on Knight Rider.
Q: You had roles in episodes of many of the most iconic TV series of the '80s. How did the audition process work for those? Once you appeared in a couple, did it become easier to get other roles? Were you satisfied working in TV or were you really wanting to be in feature films?
Keith: Once you get rolling with a particular producer, you do find it becomes easier to keep booking roles on their shows. Without Bill Blinn, Jerry Thorpe, Paul Asselin, Aaron Spelling, and Stephen J. Cannell, I probably wouldn’t have worked half as much as I did. And features were the ever elusive “brass ring” that I had been reaching for since the beginning. Although I worked quite a bit in television as a kid, it wasn’t until I was 16 and got the part in 'Adventures in Babysitting' that my goal to “be in the pictures” had finally been met.
Q: Any of those TV roles particularly memorable to you? Any interesting stories from your time on any of those shows? Robin Williams on Mork & Mindy? K.I.T.T. on Knight Rider? Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street?
Keith: No Johnny Depp, as he was on the set of Cry Baby at the time. KITT was just David’s [Hasselhoff] overactive imagination coupled with dry line readings by the script supervisor. Had a bunch of fun on Fantasy Island and Love Boat… was dismayed they filmed on sound stages and not on location at exotic locales. That episode of Mork & Mindy also happens to be the last one of the series. Same with CHiPs. I had done several episodes of CHiPs, including the last one shot.
That brings us to 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting. This is a comedy starring the lovely Elisabeth Shue. I have publicly admitted my nearly life-long crush on Elisabeth, so I am extra jealous of Keith getting to work with her.
Q: In Adventures in Babysitting, how was it working with Elisabeth Shue?
Keith: Lisa (That’s what the cool kids call her!) was a doll. Lisa was a huge star in the making… and attacked her role as “Chris” with complete gusto. Even going so far as to stand toe-to-toe with Jeffrey Katzenberg when it came down to editing the trailer. Very private, but very generous.
Adventures in Babysitting was released in the summer of 1987 and is the directorial debut of Chris Columbus. In addition to starring Shue in the lead role of the babysitter "Chris Parker", it also starred several young actors including Keith Coogan as "Brad", Maia Brewton as his Thor-loving sister "Sarah", Anthony Rapp as his best friend "Daryl" and Penelope Ann Miller as Chris' friend "Brenda". Here is the trailer for Adventures in Babysitting…
Q: How about being directed by Chris Columbus? The young cast just looked like you were having a blast making the film, so was that in fact the case? Is this the role you are most often remembered/recognized for?
Keith: Chris was so great at working with the kids as if they were adults. He had great respect for our choices, and so earned our respect back. AIB was sooooooooooo much fun making. It really was a wild ride around the city at night just like you see.
Q: One of your more memorable scenes is the confrontation with the gang on the train where you end up with a knife stuck in your foot. What do you remember about filming that particular scene?
Keith: When we were rehearsing the Gang on the Train scene, I said why don’t we just put the knife in, then pull it out with mono-filament and then run the film backwards? And that’s exactly how we did it. One other side note about the L Train sequence… we had to do some pickup shots because of a focus issue and there weren’t any Metro reps to let us in at 3:00AM. So our stunt coordinator picked the lock to the platform, we got our shots and no one seemed to be the wiser.
If you watch that scene, you can definitely tell that they used some trickery when filming the part with the knife being thrown down into his foot. Now that Keith explained it, you can see exactly how they did it…
In another memorable scene, the group enters a blues club and are not allowed to leave until they sing some blues. Here is the scene when they sing the "Babysitter Blues"...
Q: Is "Brad" the role you are most often remembered/recognized for?
Keith: No… I tend to get made as “Kenny” from 'Don’t Tell Mom' more often.
Q: It was not an '80s movie, but in 1991’s Toy Soldiers you worked with a couple other '80s child stars in Wil Wheaton and Sean Astin. Did you know these guys before joining that cast? What are your best memories from making that film?
Keith: I did know those guys prior to blowing up a small chunk of the State of Virginia with them. And once again… running around dodging helicopters, guns and grenades is just as exciting as it appears on screen. My condolences to the police car that got a rocket propelled grenade shoved down its throat… you will be missed.
Q: I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times, but what’s up with babysitting movies? You also co-starred in 1991’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead which is a bit of an under-rated movie in my opinion. To compound my jealousy, you had the opportunity to work with Christina Applegate in this one. How was that? Any special memories about this film?
Keith: No comment on the babysitting or babysitter trend. Here’s hoping for more… Christina was also someone I’d known before shooting, and had/have great respect for. That one was really just like Summer Camp for adults and kids… with the cameras running. So much fun wrecking that house!!! I could have done without the gross odor that emanated from the kitchen… all that funk was the real deal. I was so glad when we finished with the messy parts and the art department cleaned it all up!
Q: Are there any '80s roles that you auditioned for and did not get that would be surprising or interesting especially looking back now?
Keith: 'E.T.', 'Gremlins', 'Goonies', 'Explorers', 'Dream a Little Dream' (really bummed I didn’t get on that one…), 'Dead Poets Society', 'Sixteen Candles', '3 O’Clock High', etc, etc, etc…
Q: You just turned 40 this year and have spent the majority of those years in the industry. How have you seen it evolve (or devolve) over those years?
Keith: The rhythms of shooting have changed with the advent of digital capture methods. Now, instead of 20 or so shots a day, you’re looking at nearly 40 setups. The lighting can be touchy, but ultimately requires less light, and therefore fewer crew and shorter down times. Also, with the cheap cost of memory, you usually find yourself shooting rehearsals, staying on a role, improvising and generally always staying “in character” and “in the story.” It’s gotten crazy… but I like it!
Q: With your incredible first hand experience (or the experience of those you’ve known/observed), what are the positives and negatives of being a child actor? I have heard that there is a lot of rejection you have to deal with as a working actor, so that has to be even more difficult to deal with as a child? How does being a successful child actor affect your ability to be a successful adult actor?
Keith: I feel it may be the same as any art/sport/career that any child might undertake. Pressure, rejection, thrills, boredom, excitement, competition, sense of achievement and pride. I don’t feel that the rejection is that bad as a child… kids let stuff roll off of them very easily. If all of that is something that you really crave/strive on… then by all means, continue doing such into your adult years. Just like Hockey, Football, Chess, Science, Language, and Lemonade Stands.
Q: I think your “Monologue a Day Project” is very cool. Tell me how this “project” came about, your motivation and what it has meant to you over the course of this year.
Keith: It’s much more difficult than I imagined. Very tough to find material. Yet I keep plugging away. I keep learning about what makes me tick as an actor and I keep challenging myself to try different things and stretch a little. The support and feedback has been tremendous, and I look forward to the day I can look back on all 365 and feel proud for the work that went into the project.
This project has Keith learning and performing a new monologue from a movie nearly every day (as inspired by the book and film Julie & Julia). Surprisingly entertaining and an impressive undertaking!
Q: Lastly, other than “Monologue,” what is Keith Coogan up to nowadays acting or otherwise?
Keith: Look for me to play “Fred Henderson,” a child-abducting, fear-inducing, beard-wearing psycho in Jordan Alan’s Cats Dancing on Jupiter starring Amanda Righetti.
I am delighted that Keith took the time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. One of my favorite things I learned is that Elisabeth Shue actually went by the name Lisa. You can follow Keith on Twitter (@KeithCoogan) or at his official website. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Keith Coogan for his contributions to '80s (and '90s) pop culture and for reminiscing about the great decade for a little while with us as well.